We often find ourselves in seemingly intellectual debates especially around political and social issues with who we think are like minded rational people but to no end. Turns out we all carry our ideological biases despite claiming to be intelligent people. Indeed, the greater the intelligence the stronger the bias, according to Gurwinder Bhogal who cites research in this blog that find a strong corelation between the two:
“In 2013 the Yale law professor Dan Kahan conducted experiments testing the effect of intelligence on ideological bias. In one study he scored people on intelligence using the “cognitive reflection test,” a task to measure a person’s reasoning ability. He found that liberals and conservatives scored roughly equally on average, but the highest scoring individuals in both groups were the most likely to display political bias when assessing the truth of various political statements.”
He cites other studies which have shown similar results. What exactly is it about our intelligence that makes us biased? The answer according to the author lies in the motive:
“In AI research there’s a concept called the “orthogonality thesis.” This is the idea that an intelligent agent can’t just be intelligent; it must be intelligent at something, because intelligence is nothing more than the effectiveness with which an agent pursues a goal. Rationality is intelligence in pursuit of objective truth, but intelligence can be used to pursue any number of other goals. And since the means by which the goal is selected is distinct from the means by which the goal is pursued, the intelligence with which the agent pursues its goal is no guarantee that the goal itself is rational.
As a case in point, human intelligence evolved less as a tool for pursuing objective truth than as a tool for pursuing personal well-being, tribal belonging, social status, and sex
….Since we’re a social species, it is intelligent for us to convince ourselves of irrational beliefs if holding those beliefs increases our status and well-being. Dan Kahan calls this behavior “identity-protective cognition” (IPC).
By engaging in IPC, people bind their intelligence to the service of evolutionary impulses, leveraging their logic and learning not to correct delusions but to justify them. Or as the novelist Saul Bellow put it, “a great deal of intelligence can be invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.”
What this means is that, while unintelligent people are more easily misled by other people, intelligent people are more easily misled by themselves. They’re better at convincing themselves of things they want to believe rather than things that are actually true. This is why intelligent people tend to have stronger ideological biases; being better at reasoning makes them better at rationalizing.”
He also blames the education system where our intelligence is meant to be a tool to ‘win’ in life :
“For centuries, elite academic institutions like Oxford and Harvard have been training their students to win arguments but not to discern truth, and in so doing, they’ve created a class of people highly skilled at motivated reasoning. The master-debaters that emerge from these institutions go on to become tomorrow’s elites—politicians, entertainers, and intellectuals.
Master-debaters are naturally drawn to areas where arguing well is more important than being correct—law, politics, media, and academia—and in these industries of pure theory, secluded from the real world, they use their powerful rhetorical skills to convince each other of FIBs. During their master-debatery circlejerks, the most fashionable delusions gradually spread from individuals to departments to institutions to societies.”
He then talks about the effect on society through the rise of wokeism.
So how do we protect ourselves from these biases caused by our own very intelligence? The author points to a self-reinforcing combination of curiosity and humility:
“The root of the problem is therefore not our intelligence or learning, but our goals. Most goals of thinking are not to reach objective truth but to justify what we wish to believe. There is only one thing that can motivate us to put our intelligence into the service of objective truth, and that is curiosity. It was curiosity that was found by Kahan’s research to be the strongest countermeasure against bias.
But how do we make ourselves curious? Is it even possible?
Good news: if you’re reading this, you’re probably quite curious already. But there’s something you can do to supercharge your curiosity: enter the curiosity zone. Basically, curiosity is the desire to fill gaps in knowledge. As such, curiosity occurs not when you know nothing about something but when you know a bit about it. So learn a little about as much as you can, and this will create “itches” that will spur you to learn even more.
Curiosity is essential to directing your intellect toward objective truth, but it’s not all you need. You must also have humility. This is because the source of our strongest biases is our ego; we often base our self-worth on being intelligent and being right, and this makes us not want to admit when we get things wrong, or to change our mind. And so, in order to protect our chosen identity, we stay wrong.
If you define your self-worth by your ability to reason—if you cling to the identity of a master-debater—then admitting to being wrong will hurt you, and you’ll do all you can to avoid it, which will stop you learning. So instead of defining yourself by your ability to reason, define yourself by your willingness to learn. Then admitting you’re wrong, instead of feeling like an attack, will become an opportunity for growth.
Anyone who’s sure they’re humble is probably not, so I can’t say whether I’ve succeeded in becoming humble. But I can say that I always try to be humble. And, well, there’s little difference between trying to be humble and actually being so.
For me, trying to be humble entails the constant interrogation of my own motives. Could my most cherished belief be a FIB? Why do I really believe what I believe? What other reasons beside reason could I have? My self-questioning makes me agonize over every word I write, but in the long term my hesitancy gives me confidence, for by being careful about what I think I develop trust in my thoughts.
Humility and curiosity, then, are what we most need to find truth. By seeking one we also seek the other: being curious makes us humble, because it shows us how little we know, and in turn, being humble makes us curious, because it helps us acknowledge that we need to learn more.
In the end, rationality is not about intelligence but about character. Without the right personal qualities, education and IQ won’t make you a master of your biases, they’ll only make you a better servant of them. So be open to the possibility that you may be wrong, and always be willing to change your mind—especially if you’re smart. By being humble and curious you may not win many arguments, but it won’t matter, for even losing arguments will become a victory that moves you toward the far grander prize of truth.”
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